From my class blog at Sex in American Cinema
The plot of The Sheik is very different from that of Our Modern Maidens, but the mixed message about women and sexuality is the same.
Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres) is admired for her independence, high spirit and modern ideas, but when she is kidnapped by an Arab sheik, Ahmed Ben Hassan (Rudolph Valentino), she finds herself falling under the spell of his exotic masculinity. In the popular novel on which the film is based, Lady Diana learns to appreciate the sheik only after he takes her by force; in the film, he restrains himself and wins her with his consideration and respect for her. (When the film was re-released during the Code years, a scene of attempted rape had to be cut.)
Even so, the character of the sheik is recast for the film as the child of European parents, adopted by an Arab sheik; anti-miscegenation laws of the time would have precluded scenes suggesting romance and kisses between a European lady and an Arab man. The film was banned in Kansas City all the same.
The Sheik was crucial to Valentino's career as the greatest male sex symbol of the time--and created a huge backlash among American men, who boycotted the film and railed against the "effeminacy" of his screen image. He died at 31 in 1926, setting off a mass outpouring of grief among American women that was a significant moment in the history of Hollywood's power over the public imagination.